Since 25 August, there is a fresh episode of brutally against the Rohingya minority in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Within three months, at least thousands have been killed and more than 600,000 fled to take shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.
This is not something new for the Rohingya people. In October 2016 violence many civilians were killed, tortured, raped and 87, 000 were displaced. Almost same things happened in 2012 (which also made 140, 000 people IDP), 1991 and 1978 if we look back to at least recent history.
The situation is a bit different this time. The so called ‘clearance operation’ in the Rohingya villages started following a coordinated attacks on Myanmar police forces by a newly formed Rohingya insurgent group named Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 25 August.
Though the Myanmar government is justifying the indiscriminate attacks on civilians as a response to ARSA attack, a quick look into the history of Rohingya persecution will show that Rohingyas have been systematically targeted by the government irrespective of the existence of any such excuse. The violence on the Rohingya has been accused by Human Rights Watch as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’and several academic studies including by Yale Law School and the University of London as amounting to genocide as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide.
Why has the international community failed to establish durable peace in the Rakhine state? Why have the conflicts erupted consistently despite the calls of international human rights bodies hundreds of time? What are the real political issues which thwart the peace process?
A closer look will reveal that Myanmar is a state which has almost zero respect and care for international norms and diplomacy. Among the recent events, the government said it will not issue visa to UN team to investigate the accusation of rights abuse in Rakhine. It has also obstructed WFP to provide aid to vulnerable refugees. Even the UN envoy Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, was labelled as a ‘whore’ by a leading monk when she advocated for human rights of Rohingya.
Rohingyas are considered ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh by Myanmar and most of them have been denied citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. Interestingly, the monks, military and democratic politicians are all in the same line when it comes to the case of Rohingya. Even the name ‘Rohingya’ is a taboo there.
Regarding the slow response of the international community, there is a common belief among Rohingya as well as many Bangladeshi that the international community is discriminatory to the Muslims and the response would be much serious if this level of brutality happened in any Western country. It is hard to validate such accusations, however, this type feeling may fuel anti-Western feelings among a large number of Muslims which is now held by a small group of radicals.
Apart from such hypothesis, there are some real games in action. Myanmar government gets blanket domestic support regarding the military operations against Rohingya. Unless the warnings by the international community are backed by credible threat, the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces will just not care. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which is a potential avenue to take action against serious human rights abuse such as genocide became neutralized by the presence of reliable friend China. Following the eruption of violence in late August, Britain requested a Security Council meeting but China resisted stronger involvement by the UN.
In last March, a press statement on the violence in Myanmar was blocked by using VETO by China and Russia. In 2007, another UNSC resolution demanding an end to political repression and human rights violations in Myanmar was also blocked by China and Russia using VETO power. Chinese interests in Myanmar can be visible by the $7.3 billion deep-sea port project in KyaukPyu as part of its ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan. Reuters reports that:
"KyaukPyu is important for China because the port is the entry point for a Chinese oil and gas pipeline which gives it an alternative route for energy imports from the Middle East that avoids the Malacca Straits, a shipping chokepoint."
KyaukPyu is located in Rakhine state.
Another regional power India is also silent on the Rohingya issue and is competing with China to establish close trade and military relations. In July, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Tatmadaw visited India and met with Indian army’s chief, Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and National Security Advisor. India is maintaining a distinct relationship with Tatmadaw apart from diplomatic relations with Naypyidaw and heavily investing in Tatmadaw with huge arms export and ‘appears apathetic about the humanitarian ramifications of emboldening an army that has been widely accused of serious human rights violations and subversion of democracy’.
Being a strong regional economic association, ASEAN has strong capability to improve the situation in Myanmar. However, it is limited by its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.
From state levels, only several Muslim countries provided strong statement against Myanmar which includes Turkey, Malaysia, Maldives, Indonesia and Maldives. It is also claimed that the top leaders of the countries often use the rhetoric against Myanmar to attain support of majority Muslims domestically rather than playing any effective role.
Bangladesh, as the most affected country by the flow of refugees, is trying its best to provide humanitarian support and campaigning to mobilise international support for repatriation of refugees. Lately, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to begin the repatriation process.
However, unless the Myanmar government ensure citizenship and legal rights of Rohingya, the repatriation may not solve the problem permanently. The persecution and exodus of Rohingya may repeat if not root causes are addressed by Myanmar.
(The author, Ashraful Azad, is an Assistant Professor and Acting Chairperson of the Department of International Relations, University of Chittagong. He can be reached by email: [email protected])
BDST: 1820 HRS, DEC 3, 2017